Have you gone by the Rialto Theater lately? Maybe you’ve noticed its striking beauty for the first time. That’s because its exterior (as well as interior) has been lovingly restored!
By Melissa Michelson
The approximately 40-minute presentation starts with a brief history of South Pasadena and sets the scene with historic photos from the turn of the century of South Pasadena and Fair Oaks Avenue. Escott O. Norton, who founded Friends of the Rialto to work on the restoration project, also shows photos of the theater and the restoration process. One photo from the 1930s reveals a small theater called The Ritz on the east side of Fair Oaks, next to what is now Gus’s BBQ, along with the now non-existent electric train tracks going up and down Fair Oaks. Escott’s presentation also includes photos of the premiere the silent film “What Happened to Jones” on Oct 17, 1925. Relatives of the founders of the theater provided some photos which are used in his presentation.
The mission of Friends of the Rialto is to restore the theater and “reactivate the theater for the community.” The Friends of the Rialto have restored the original silent movie projectors and in the 1980s cleaned the interior murals and installed new light bulbs.
Highlights of Escott’s presentation include current photos of the theater inside, including the original vaudeville backdrop curtain, backstage backdrops, the Batchelder tile fountain in original condition in the lobby, a section of original carpet, and some original wood-framed seats still awaiting restoration. Viewers also got a rare glimpse of historic photos of performances back in the day and into the present.
Exterior Paint and Marquee
The oldest 1933 photo of the entire building was a jumping off point for the Rialto exterior restoration. At around the 21st minute of the recorded presentation, Escott goes over the process for exterior restoration, including how the new color palate was chosen, with conservationists analyzing the various layers of paint over the years.
The goal for the marquee restoration was to restore it to as close to the original 1925 marquee as possible, which had to be approved by South Pasadena City staff. Back in the day, yellow and red were chosen to be more visible to passing motorists.
The tenants of The Rialto, Mosaic, restored the marquee’ neon lights, with Friends of the Rialto in the consulting role. Escott shared his color photos from the 1980s-90s for reference, and at around the 27th minute, he outlines the restoration process of the neon lights. The original red neon lights had still been in working order while undergoing restoration.
Exterior Batchelder Tiles
It was suspected that authentic Batchelder tiles lined the exterior under the storefront windows along Fair Oaks. During the restoration process they saw “Batchelder Los Angeles” was printed on the back of the tiles. In the 1970s the tiles were painted white. A tile maker carefully cleaned the existing tiles, and for those that were too damaged or missing, another tile company was hired to make reproductions. It’s worth popping over to the Rialto to take a look.
Wurlitzer Pipe Organ
The Rialto’s Wurlitzer pipe organ used to accompany silent movies and live acts. In 1971 there was a fire, which destroyed much of the organ. The remaining organ console and some of the pipes ended up in the hands of a collector in San Francisco who did some restoration. After he passed away, it was donated to the South Pasadena Preservation Foundation and stored and displayed at the Meridian Iron Works museum. A few years ago, the museum donated it to Friends of the Rialto, which stored it and cleaned it up, and it was displayed in Pasadena. Now it is in the process of being restored in Los Angeles, with the aim of eventually being reinstalled back in its home of the Rialto theater.
South Pasadena can be proud of this historic community theater, which seems to be in good hands under the partnership of the City, Friends of the Rialto, and the current tenants.
> To stay abreast of the restoration project at the Rialto Theater, you can join the mailing list at friendsoftherialto.org. The South Pasadena Library is also collecting the public’s recounts of personal experiences or photos at the Rialto.
Fun facts about The Rialto Theater:
- The Rialto Theater took less than a year to build in 1925.
- It cost $110,000 to build (compared to $5,100 for a home at the time).
- The Rialto’s original dimmer board still works.
- There was a giant blower in the basement.
- The stage was originally built for vaudeville and includes an orchestra pit.
- There are 12 dressing rooms under the stage along with a green room and a trap door under the stage for quick appearances and disappearances during performances.
- The Rialto closed in 2007 and at that time had held the record for the longest run of the Rocky Horror Picture Show.
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